Again, more than 4,000 migrants rescued in Mediterranean over weekend
Italian coast guard and navy ships led the rescue of more than 4,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea at the weekend, in a sign that the surge of refugees fleeing via Libya for a better life on European shores has accelerated.
On Saturday, Italian coast guard officials says 3,690 people were saved from 17 separate boats in distress, marking one of the largest single-day tallies of rescued refugees. An additional 500 were estimated to have been rescued on Sunday, officials said.
But Italian media reported that least 10 people died during the journeys, which are often made on overcrowded inflatable dinghies and fishing boats, with little or no food or water.
The weekend's rescues involved the mobilisation of at least 10 different Italian ships — as well as one French vessel that is part of operation Triton, the EU's border patrol mission operating off the coast of Italy and Malta.
Last month, after at least 700 refugees died when their boat capsized off the Libyan coastline, EU leaders held an emergency summit and agreed to treble the funds assigned to operation Triton, from €3m per month to €9m per month.
Many aid agencies believe that is still insufficient given the scale of the migrant flows. As many as 170,000 refugees reached Italy by sea last year, a number that is expected to be significantly higher in 2015.
Triton's mandate has also generated criticism. While its boats do respond to distress calls across the Mediterranean, their mission is to patrol waters only within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
That represents a much narrower scope compared to Mare Nostrum, an expansive Italian search and rescue operation that patrolled up to the edge of Libyan territorial waters but was shut down last December as anti-immigrant sentiment flared up in many EU countries.
At the EU summit last month, leaders also agreed to consider targeted military strikes on empty boats used by human traffickers to carry the migrants. The smugglers often subject the refugees — mainly from the Middle East and Africa — to physical and verbal abuse even after demanding at least $1,000 for the crossing.
But it is unclear whether this effort will come to fruition, given that it would require a UN mandate, or consent from civil war-ravaged Libyan authorities, to make it consistent with international law.
Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, visited the US to discuss the issue last week, but it is unclear how much success she had. Meanwhile, speaking in Rome last week, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon criticised the plan, saying it was not the “appropriate way” to resolve the problem.
The EU is also considering whether to spread the refugees more evenly among its member states, given that Italy is taking on the biggest burden. Most of the migrants are initially transported to Sicily and other southern Italian ports, but afterwards they often try to make their way to northern Italy and other countries in northern Europe.
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